On 27 June 1914 Emperor Franz Joseph began his summer retreat at Ischl, as he did every year. The very next day a telegram arrived bearing the news of the assassination of the heir to the throne at Sarajevo.
The ageing monarch returned to Vienna immediately, where he was met at Penzing station by Archduke Karl – a clear public sign that the empire had a new heir to the throne.
However, Karl was more or less unprepared for this role when he moved up the line of succession after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo. It had been generally expected that Franz Ferdinand would rule for several decades. Karl started out on a military career, as was customary for male members of the dynasty. Franz Joseph thought that Karl should first work his way slowly up through the ranks in order to acquaint himself at first hand with the structures of the army, which the emperor regarded as the preeminent pillar of Habsburg rule.
Franz Joseph’s personal relations with Karl were considerably better than with Franz Ferdinand. Karl did not question the authority of his great-uncle, who was 57 years his senior, and like many people in the monarchy saw Franz Joseph as a figurehead who was above criticism. Thanks to his conciliatory – or as malicious tongues had it, naive – nature, Karl found it relatively easy to deal with the difficult character of his uncle Franz Ferdinand. The latter involved his presumed successor Karl in his political decisions to an only minimal degree, and made it quite clear to his nephew that Karl’s time had not yet come.
When Karl unexpectedly became heir in 1914, a concerted effort was made to prepare him for the succession. Given the advanced age of Franz Joseph, his death could be expected at any time. From summer 1915 Karl was to be found almost constantly at the emperor’s side in a hasty effort to remedy what had hitherto been neglected. Karl was not involved in any important decision-making until the last possible moment and was thus insufficiently prepared when the emperor’s life came to a close.
Significantly, on the outbreak of war it was not Karl but Archduke Friedrich from the Teschen line of the Habsburgs who was appointed commander-in-chief. Although Friedrich had undergone military training like most of the male members of the Habsburg family, Friedrich was appointed to this position solely due to his high-born rank and not thanks to any particular aptitude. Nicknamed ‘Bumsti’, Friedrich was an officer suited to peacetime parades and manoeuvres, but not to the grim realities of warfare. The true military mastermind was Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, head of general staff.
For the old-established court circles as well as for Europe’s political elites, the young heir to the throne was an unknown quantity. In the crisis of the First World War this proved to be a huge problem. Crown Prince Rudolf and later Archduke Franz Ferdinand had waited in the wings for longer; their political positions were thus well-known, in contrast to those of Karl.
In Karl a new generation took over at the moribund Viennese court, a generation that had a different approach to the Habsburg traditions. The differences were evident in the way Karl behaved with those around him. Franz Joseph had always been very aloof: concerned to preserve the dignity of his majestic office, he put a clear distance between himself and the rest of humanity, never engaging in any personal discourse or asking for advice. He listened to the opinion of various advisors and then issued his irrevocable decision. By contrast, Karl cultivated a far more personal and cooperative tone in his dealings with other people, a trait that was often interpreted as weakness. Such behaviour was not customary at the Habsburg court. The young monarch was also regarded as easily led and subject to the influence of his wife Zita and a circle of intimates and friends that began to form around him. He also frequently ignored the opinion of official advisors and experts.
One of the leading figures who had doubts about Karl’s suitability as monarch was Ernest von Koerber, who served briefly as prime minister of Austria-Hungary at the time of the succession. Appointed to this office by Franz Joseph in October 1916 shortly before the latter’s death, Koerber resigned in December of the same year due to massive differences of opinion with the new emperor. Koerber’s assessment of the situation was wholly without illusion: “The old emperor laboured for sixty years to bring about the fall of the monarchy; the young one will manage it in two years”.
He was to be proved right …